January 25, 2010

Walk the thought

THE closest we can get to sustainable (today’s buzz word ) living is by walking.
Literally walking with our two feet.

When we walk the walk, we wander into topics such as philosophy and spirituality, the urban landscape, health and heart. Most of the time, we think that walking is merely for moving from one place to another.

Let us briefly delve into an intellectual history of walking. In doing so, we engage ourselves in the linkage between architecture and language.

When Aristotle was setting up a school in Athens, he was assigned a plot of land. On the land stood shrines to Apollo and the Muses. Connected to a shrine was a covered colonnade or walk (per ipatos), which gave Aristotle’s school its name, and its lecturers theirs — the peripatetic philosophers.

It was along the colonnade that Aristotle lectured while walking up and down. So began the Peripatetic School where “Aristotle and teachers walked habitually and extensively while teaching” — uniting walking with thinking.

Walk the thought if you like.

Accounts about the meaning of walking have been personal, descriptive and, I must stress, they embody some form of alienation.

Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking notes that its meaning cannot be found in philosophy; but in poetry, novels, letters, diaries, traveller s’ accounts and first-person e s s ay s.

William Wordsworth made walking central to his life and an art to a degree almost unparalleled before or since. He seemed to have gone walking nearly every day of his long life, and through the activity he encountered the world, which influenced his poetry.

A road is a sight on perspective — something that I enjoy while walking — lined with trees or buildings. Roads have long conditioned my sense of perspectival space. But then, Wordsworth described it better: I love a public road; few sights there are That please me more — such object had had power O’er my imagination since the dawn Of childhood, when its disappearing line Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep Beyond the limits which my feet had trod Was like a guide into eternity, At least to things unknown and without bound.

Walking has created trade routes and generated local and cross-continental senses of place.
Walking has created trade routes and generated local and cross-continental senses of place.

In my schooldays, I used to walk for miles (before the kilometre disrupted our sense of distance).

The field fronting Penang Free School at leafy Green Lane was space for walking — along and across. We walked, thought and talked. I remember Azman Zain and M. Vijayandran.

The school compound was huge by t o d ay ’s standards, lined on one side by mature angsana trees and at the other end of the field, a pavilion.

The walks were an education in themselves. Walking was the school’s hidden curriculum, even to the teachers.

I must not forget to mention the road along Green Lane and Scotland Road which provided a pleasant walk then.

Walking has long sustained man’s sanity. It is an institution. Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned, as though they were a trio of characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord, wrote Solnit, an author and essayist with more than five books and articles on visual art, public space, landscape and environmental issues.

She argued for the necessity of preserving time and space in which to walk in a world built for the motor car and other machines. Indeed, much can be learnt from walking.

But we hardly walk (or learn) anymore. We build communities and cities for motorised vehicles. There is little, or no space to walk. We design our built environment without the pedestrian in mind. There is little or no connectivity.

Our cityscapes are machine-dominated.

Even small towns, such as Bandar Seri Iskandar, Perak, where I am staying, are not spared.

You need some form of a motorised transportation to move around. We reside in our private comfort zone of the vehicle, perhaps deliberately hiding ourselves from others behind the tinted glass of the vehicle and not necessarily the glare of the sun. We alienate wa l k i n g .

We cannot even walk safely — there are not enough five-foot ways for walking. We share the same space with cars and buses, making our environment not pedestrian-friendly. And being people-friendly is also Earth-friendly.

This was expressed by Japanese architect and urban planner Shunya Susuki, an advocate of life at walking speed (See Learning Curve, March 8 2009 and pages H22 and 23 for more).

Fukuoka-based Susuki, former coordinating officer for UN Habitat Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, believes in matching the pace of life with walking speed, which will reduce traffic accidents and crime, and engage people at pedestrian level. This does mean that we do not need other modes of transportation. There are bicycles and “green vehicles”.

Walking is at the same time History and Geography. It evokes the complexity of time, space and place. Modern man lives in compressed time — g l o b a l i s at i o n and the death of distance.

We have evolved, so we think. But life at walking speed advocates the decompression of time, space, habits, thoughts and language. Modern society measures itself against its ability to evolve in tandem with technology.

Walking is devolution — back to the source of sustainability.

I did not have to wrestle with vehicles at Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I studied for three years. Daily, I walked for 20 to 25 minutes, crossing the Mississippi River to the Twin Cities campus from my apartment on the East Bank at University Avenue. I enjoyed my walks all year round — winter, spring, summer and fall. Along the way, I engaged myself with the trees, falling leaves, sun, snow and the sights and sounds of squirrels and birds.

And I delightfully absorbed the different colours of the changing seasons.

In the history of mankind, walking engages us to look for something. Walking is as sacred as the pilgrimage. It is premised on the idea that the sacred is not entirely immaterial. There is a geography of spiritual power. The travel and arrival is fundamental.

I encountered Wanderlust some years ago. It prompted a response to my frustration of not being able to enjoy long walks any more — one due to work (except during lectures — I do not teach sitting down) and the other, the apathy and hostility towards walking by our planners and policy makers. I may have succumbed to that.

Even our universities do not generally promote walking on campus. They are turning into city centres, choked with traffic and pollution. We do not teach students to walk. We cannot blame them because many campuses were not conceived, designed and constructed with sustainability in mind.

But we must not allow walking to be taken for granted. Our environment has both shaped and been shaped by the imagination through spaces passed by our two feet.

Solnit waxed eloquent that walking has created paths, roads and trade routes; generated local and cross-continental senses of place, shaped cities and parks; created maps, guidebooks and gear; and further afield, a vast library of walking stories and poems, pilg r images, mountaineering expeditions, meanders and summer picnics.

“The landscapes, urban and rural, gestate the stories, and the stories bring us back to the sites of this history.” Walking affects everybody. The history of walking is an amateur one. It is ever yone’s experience. “I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness,” Solnit r e l at e d . That sounds much like life at walking speed.

To recall Wordsworth, walking is being, not becoming. It is about space and place.

If you observe our cities — and I mean places that we have built that we call “t ow n s ”, urban centres, suburban neighbourhoods and the like, there is an absence of public space where one can consume the walk.

I used to stay in USJ Subang Jaya, Petaling Jaya and commute to my workplace in Shah Alam where public space in both townships has not been well c o n c e i ve d .

We build modern houses, compar tmentalise our area, and the only “public space” is the road fronting our houses. The roads in our neighbourhoods do not have pavements. Most sections are now gated. The pedestrian is looked upon with suspicion.

We live in an architecture of fear — of machines and motorised vehicles, s n at c h thefts, muggers and burglars. We are the nemesis of sustainability.

University campuses are ideal places to advocate walking and should be promoted as such — perhaps a day in a week to celebrate bipedalism. We miss exploring the walk, the thought and the terrain.

I fear that the erosion of ethics (both in the sociological and technological sense) in our society will kill the simple pleasures of the pedestrian, and bury (the sustainability of) the thought.

n The writer is a professor at the Department of Management and Humanities, Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS, Bandar Seri Iskandar, Perak. Email him at amurad_